Failure at Masters, in sports, only natural

Understand first that there was no cruelty in what happened Sunday. It was as natural and dispassionate as gravity. Rory McIlroy's return to earth on the back nine at the Masters was not a calamity, but instead restored order to things. We were never meant to fly.

Thus, some overnight thoughts on failure.

At the very moment Rory McIlroy was trying to quiet the roar in his head by loosening up on the practice tees of Augusta, the best cyclists in the world were clattering to the pavement of northern France. Gravity was hard at work there, too. One hundred seven riders lost the most famous single-day event in racing, the Paris-Roubaix, on Sunday. Johan van Summeren alone remained upright across the cobblestones long enough to win the race the French call "L'Enfer du Nord," the "Hell of the North." This he did as much by chance as by training or calculation. If you saw the thing rebroadcast, saw the rising dust and the collapsing faces and all that shattered carbon fiber, you know why the great documentary of the 1976 race was called "A Sunday in Hell."

And so it was, even on Saturday night, when the Bulldogs of UMD beat Michigan in an overtime instant to win the national collegiate hockey title. The University of Minnesota Duluth skated a great game; as great as was skated by the University of Michigan. But one pass and one shot made one a winner and one a loser. One succeeds. One fails. By the width of a skate blade.

Fourteen NHL teams saw the playoffs slip away Sunday. Thousands of hours spent in practice and ambition, gone. Fourteen more teams in the NBA will be out of the playoffs soon enough. All those prayers and all those shouts and all that sweat, in useless service of disappointment.

Even the sudden, comic retirement of Manny Ramirez reminds us that failure is the steady state of things. What Manny -- and Barry and Roger and Mark and Sammy and hundreds and hundreds of others -- tried to do was buy a hedge against failure, against the long, down-bound arc of our frailty. This was not "performance enhancement." It was a fool's insurance against the inevitable.

Hundreds of athletes lost on Sunday. Thousands. Tens of thousands around the world.

Failure is the default setting of everything we know. Of everything human. Sports. Politics. Science. Art. To win is the rarity. To exceed, to transcend, to excel, to make something beautiful or lasting is a singularity. This is how and why we make legends and heroes.

To create order or peace or empathy or warmth or comfort or joy is nearly impossible. Day in, day out we try to do these things, and we fail. In almost every case, we simply remain as we were. As we are. Human. Flawed. Earthbound.

This is the natural order of things. There is no malice in it, just the indifferent turning of the Earth. The only cruelty is human. The only absurdity the question, "What happened out there?" or "How does it make you feel? "

And to call what happened to Rory McIlroy a collapse is to miss the larger point of the human experiment. It was not catastrophe; it was just a return. An explorer came back to us, having found only himself. It was a homecoming.

I can't say he'll be fine. I can't say, and neither can you nor anyone else, that he'll rebound from all this, that he'll bounce back from The Fall, that he'll learn from it, grow, that he'll come back better than ever. He might. It might make him stronger, it might make him a better golfer, it might even make him a better man. Or it might ruin him. Crush him and everyone he loves. That's just truth.

The only honest comfort Rory McIlroy may ever know might come to him when he realizes this: that the rest of us, everybody everywhere at every instant in history and at every moment of every day for the rest of our lives, stands with him in that same tee box on the 10th at Augusta on Sunday afternoon, forever worried and earthbound, hearts pounding, the roar of every ocean in our ears, but looking ahead and determined to play on.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.